Alicia Keys: ‘I was supposed to end up a prostitute or addicted to drugs’

With the release of a new album, the singer picks favourite tracks from her back catalogue and talks about the magic of working with Kanye West, surviving the tough streets of New York and her struggles with self-worth

Musicians can be prone to false modesty or putting their achievements down to whatever spiritual energy is currently in fashion. There is none of that with Alicia Keys. “If you put me in a room, I will close the deal,” she says, filling her hotel room with infectious CEO energy, all emphatic statements and eye contact. “But at the time I was bringing my music into the world, it was not on trend, at all. All the radio stations thought I was a 40-year-old jazz crooner. Meanwhile I was 19 with cornrows from Harlem.”

Nevertheless, in 2001 Keys closed the deal in living rooms across America with a career-making performance of her song Fallin on Oprah, a song that “was nothing like anything ever, not yesterday, today or tomorrow”, says Keys. She has since won 15 Grammys across six albums, with a seventh, Alicia, out this week, having been postponed (like the publication of this interview) from a spring release by coronavirus. Almost 20 years ago, she risked upsetting purists by bringing modern drum programming into classic soul and jazz; by embracing a relatively demure image, she risked seeming old-fashioned. “None of my songs should have ever worked, to be honest,” she says. These are some of her favourites that did anyway.

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